The Importance of Being Conscious: Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson


From the Publisher:

“By defending the importance of individual reflection, Robinson celebrates the power and variety of human consciousness in the tradition of William James. She explores the nature of subjectivity and considers the culture in which Sigmund Freud was situated and its influence on his model of self and civilization. Through keen interpretations of language, emotion, science, and poetry, Absence of Mind restores human consciousness to its central place in the religion-science debate.”

I first encountered Marilynne Robinson in 1983, at the beginning of her fame. Housekeeping had just won the 1982 Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for first fiction, and she had come to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she is now a member of the faculty, to read from her award-winning novel. I had read Housekeeping with awe. Seeing the author in person was an inspiration to me. I’d come to the Workshop with three small children and my husband — I’ll resist the temptation to say “in tow” — straight from my ordinary life as a high school teacher in Milwaukee. Apart from having a lot of reading to catch up on, I felt marked by my apparent domesticity, my lack of writerly panache, even my age. (I was an ancient 31 at the time.) And now here came Marilynne Robinson, with her extraordinary first novel, apparently about my age or even a few years older, and nothing of the black turtleneck about her. She looked like an ordinary person.

She is not an ordinary person — and I don’t say that just because her second novel won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and her third the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. As her son James once said (in an interview with The Idaho Statesman), “our way of bonding is to discuss Theodor Adorno’s critique of Christianity.” Robinson is a kind of brilliance made of words — a unique consciousness, an irreplaceable subjectivity (and a native of Idaho) — visible in the ordinary world as a woman with a kind and intelligent face framed by thick hair, gray now, parted on the side and blunt cut above her shoulders. Robinson is a kind of brilliance made of words —
a unique consciousness, an irreplaceable subjectivity…
The only person I’ve ever met face to face whose individual subjectivity compares in its special kind of brilliance to hers is her colleague at the Workshop, James Alan McPherson. Put the two of them in a room together and you’ve got all the evidence you need to understand how misguided the modern myth of the self must be, if its scientific and parascientific methods require the “suppression of the testimony of individual consciousness.”

This suppression, along with the poor light it casts on both science and religion, is the subject of Robinson’s new book, which began as a series of Terry lectures she delivered at Yale. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale University Press, 2010) offers a critical look at evolutionary, neurological, psychoanalytical, and sociological models of human nature that have in common “an exclusion of the testimonies of culture and history,” models that “refuse to acknowledge subjectivity.” Robinson takes to task theories that “forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time.”


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